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Politics on the Spot

Politics on the Spot: Truck Stop

Rene Gutel

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Trucker Jesse Cerna
(Rene Gutel)
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With the presidential election just over six weeks away, we're launching a new series on Weekend America called "Politics on the Spot." Over the next six weekends, we want to take you to places where important issues are at play every day - and to hear how those might be handled differently going forward depending on who's our next president. We're calling the series "Politics on the Spot." Rene Gutel kicks off the series at a truck stop on the road west from Phoenix to Los Angeles.

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Liberty Fuel is an independent truck stop off Interstate 10. They have bays of gas pumps in front and diesel stations in the back for the trucks. In between is a cavernous convenience store, with all the usual sodas, slushees, candy and beef jerky. Trucker Jesse Cerna walks inside, opens his wallet and peels off 15 $20 bills. That's all he has right now to get a load of scrap metal to Southern California. "Three hundred on 19," he says to the cashier behind the counter. Cerna goes outside and over to his massive white truck and starts to pump.

"Right now I'm going to put my gloves on," Cerna says. "Don't want to get dirty." He puts a diesel pump in one half of his truck's engine, and then walks around to the other side to put a second pump in. Cerna says he has to pay all his fuel costs up front, and then it can take up to a month for him to get reimbursed. And he says these days, work is harder to come by.

"I've personally had 15 friends give up their trucks," he says. "I've had friends call me crying if they could borrow money, but of course they couldn't because I'm in the same boat myself. I got a friend who called the other day, said he came home to no lights, no water. It's very horrible. And all we're doing is trying to work and survive."

Cerna says he's voting for Democrat Barack Obama because he thinks the country needs to change direction. But at the same time, Cerna says he doesn't feel like either presidential candidate is speaking to him.

"I wish they would mention something about truckers," Cerna says. "What they would do to help us because otherwise, honest to God, we're here by ourselves. By ourselves."

The diesel pumps click off, and Cerna checks the readout to see how much fuel he got.
"The $300 only gave me 77 gallons, but it'll get me where I need to go." And with that, he gets in his cab and pulls off.

After two days of talking to drivers, I invite representatives of the two major political parties to come to the truck stop. We sit at a table at the Wendy's fast food restaurant connected to the travel center. Emily DeRose is the spokeswoman for the Arizona Democrats. She is wearing jeans, with her hair pulled back in a neat pony tail. Camilla Strongin is the spokeswoman for the Arizona Republicans. She has a blond bob and is wearing a trendy gray cotton dress.

Strongin says to get fuel prices back under control, the government needs to have all options on the table. "We need to do everything we possibly can, which means using all our own natural resources as well as looking to new technology and helping to stimulate research and development. There's not one solution to this problem, it's multi-level."

"As for Democrats," Emily DeRose jumps in, "one of the first things you'll see is Senator Obama would give families a $1000 tax credit to help them pay for some of these outrageous energy prices, and he'd use money from oil companies that have been making astronomic profits to help families pay for the fuel prices that they're looking at now."

I look over at Camilla Strongin and ask her if she wants to respond.

"Absolutely," Strongin says. "What she fails to tell you is his rebate is really all about increasing the expenses on gas companies, which we consumers are going to feel."

Without meaning to, I had set-up a mini-presidential debate. Buzz phrases like "tax credits" and "working families" are ping-ponging around the Wendy's.

Strongin attacks Obama's stance on drilling. "Off-shore drilling is something that Senator Obama has really flip-flopped on as far as where he stands," she says. "And I'm not even sure what his position is today."

"Well, let me interrupt, Camilla," DeRose says. "John McCain was opposed to off-shore drilling until June, when millions of dollars from energy lobbyists started pouring into his campaign."

"My head is starting to spin a bit," I say. "As you guys go back and forth."

I drag the two spokesladies outside. We go to the diesel pumps in the back and run into trucker Larry Melvin of Muskogee, Okla. With a long goatee, Melvin looks like he would be at home at a ZZ Top concert. He is holding two ice-cold cans of Red Bull. I ask him how much he had put in his tank today.

"Six hundred dollars," Melvin says.

"So how much is that a week?"

"Three thousand a week in fuel." And he says he is not reimbursed for those costs for 30 days, which seems to stun Democrat Emily DeRose. "You have to front all that?" she asks. "That's incredible."

When asked, Melvin tells us he is not impressed with either political party. "They're lost in their own actions," he says. "They don't care what's going on with the people. They're out for their own gain."

Republican Camilla Strongin asks Melvin if he is registered to vote. Melvin nods to Strongin that yes, he is registered, but says he is undecided.

DeRose jumps in and asks Melvin, "What are the issues that you care about that you feel like aren't being addressed?"

"Well, we need to get something with health care," says Melvin. "Canada does it. Mexico does it. There's got to be some reason these other countries can do it, why can't we?"

Since Melvin is an undecided voter, I ask both Strongin and DeRose to give him their best 30-second pitch for his vote. DeRose launches into Obama's health care plan. When it's Camilla's turn, she goes back to fuel prices and talks about the need for energy independence.

After they've finished, I turn to Melvin and ask if he has any thoughts based on what he had just heard. "No thoughts," he says, shaking his head.

Melvin heads back to his truck, his energy drinks sweating from the heat. Strongin and DeRose take off, too. I'm left standing in the sun, watching the truckers pour hundreds of dollars of diesel fuel into their tanks.

More stories from our Politics on the Spot series

Comments

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  • By April T

    09/22/2008

    Terrible! More bickering between representatives of both parties. Come on Weekend America. You can do much better than this!

    By Stuart Kuperstock

    From Cedar Rapids, IA, 09/20/2008

    I am a truck driver - a "company" driver. The company owns the truck, and gives me a credit card with which to purchase fuel. It is not unusual for me to approach the thousand dollar mark at the pump. I get paid for the work I do - by the mile - each week, and leave the truck maintenance and all of the costs to the company. However, I sleep at the truck stops and know the owner-operators...we eat, live and work together. I do not know how they survive. You can watch them furtively carry Ramen noodles in and mix in hot water from the truck stop's coffee machine: that's their dinner. Those guys are starving - literally. I am hopeful that the legacy this administration leaves can be cleaned up soon, and something can be done about the odor that will linger for a long time. - Stuart Kuperstock (COO-per-stock)

    By Andrew Faehnle

    From Cincinnati, OH, 09/20/2008

    There was a fantastic song that faded in right at the end of this story; what was it?

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